Breaking Down Condé Nast’s E-Sales

Digital editions equal 1.3 percent of total circulation

Magazine subscriptions became available on the iPad this spring, and the first meaningful set of results are out, with Condé Nast announcing that it’s drawn 242,000 digital customers through Apple’s iTunes store in the six weeks since it introduced iPad subs. Condé Nast said the results were better than expected in many cases. But a breakdown of the numbers shows it may be too early to pop the Champagne.

The digital editions are a tiny amount—1.3 percent—of Condé Nast’s total print circulation, which stood at 18.6 million at the end of 2010.

More than half of the 242,000 were 136,000 print subscribers who paid nothing extra to add the digital edition. That leaves 106,000 paying customers, nearly three-quarters of whom got subscriptions; the rest bought single copies.

Condé Nast didn’t break down sales by title, but it seemed especially happy with The New Yorker’s numbers. The weekly reported it sold 20,000 iPad subs, at $59.99 a year. Another 75,000 print subscribers opted in to get the digital edition. The company was clearly interested in showcasing those results, which led to some grumbling at other titles. But The New Yorker had advantages over the seven other titles that were introduced in May, including Glamour and Vanity Fair, in that it went on sale a few weeks before them. As a weekly, The New Yorker has more opportunity for purchase than a monthly does. The iPad’s high-end ownership also favors The New Yorker.

By comparison, men's monthly GQ said it served 35,862 digital editions for its June issue, including paid subs, single copy sales and print subscribers who added digital editions for free. In fairness, GQ has been available on the iPad longer than most of its sibling titles, even if it had been selling single issues only. Golf Digest sold 14,029.

Not surprisingly, given the iPad's male-centric ownership, numbers for women's titles were modest, with Glamour selling 15,291 and Self just 9,211. The titles didn't provide a further breakdown, so there's no way to know how many of those were actually purchased versus authenticated print subscriptions.

What really matters is how much revenue the digital sales will generate over the long term, said Paul Verna, a senior analyst at eMarketer. “They’ve made it very easy for print subscribers to go digital,” he said. “But at some point, they’ve got to pay the bills. It’ll be interesting to see how this current spike plays out on the revenue side.”

These sales were made under the less-than-favorable terms Condé Nast was forced to accept, along with other publishers, that handed Apple 30 percent of the revenue and deprived publishers of the consumer information they wanted for renewal and other marketing purposes. Despite publishers’ efforts to sell their content on competing devices, the iPad is likely to remain dominant—and publishers are likely to stay the course—for some time.

Selling iPad subscriptions has been a long time coming for publishers, since they found few readers willing to download and buy individual issues at the high single-copy price. The disclosure comes as advertisers have increasingly demanded that publishers share information about the number of downloads and readers’ demographics and engagement levels with digital editions, and Condé's release may add pressure to others to follow suit.

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